Study Guide

An American Dream Themes

  • Society and Class

    If the American Dream is all about moving on up, then Mailer's An American Dream is about coming back down. From the outside, Rojack has it made: He's a war hero, ex-congressman, distinguished professor, famous television host, and husband to the wealthiest heiress this side of Paris Hilton. In other words, this dude is high society.

    There's just one problem, though. In his heart, Rojack can't deny how unfulfilling the whole deal is. Sure, he takes these frustrations out in some less-than-savory ways (a little bit of murder, for starters), but along the way he shows us the unseen consequences of life in the 1 percent.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does class play into Deborah and Rojack's relationship? How about Rojack and Cherry's? Explore similarities and differences between the two relationships.
    2. Compare and contrast Rojack's and Kelly's experiences rising through the ranks of society. How different is Rojack from Kelly?
    3. Does Shago want to join the upper class? Explain, using the text to support.
    4. Why does Kelly fall in love with Bess?

    Chew on This

    Rojack never actually loves Deborah as a person—he only ever loves the access she gives him to high society.

    No matter how high Rojack rises through the social ranks, he can't escape the emptiness inside him. If anything, more money and power just empties him further.

  • Mortality

    In An American Dream, Rojack is so obsessed with death that we're pretty sure this is his favorite song. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course—he had a harrowing experience with death during World War II, and it lingers in the back of his mind. Although he's done pretty well for himself since he came home from the war, he feels haunted by his battle memories and his awareness of his mortality. To be honest, it drives his mad, convincing him of insane beliefs about the moon and how it represents death. While Rojack's reactions are anything but rational, we can learn tons about our own fears of mortality by diving into them.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What is the symbolism of the German's eyes?
    2. Is Rojack afraid of death? Explain, using the text to support your answer.
    3. What is the relationship between death and the moon? What does it tell you about Rojack?
    4. What is the significance of Cherry and Deborah predicting their own deaths? Does their gender impact your interpretation? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Just as Rojack sees fear of death as the main motivator of humankind, his own experiences with death drive him throughout the novel.

    Unlike most of his peers, Rojack has experienced death firsthand, giving him a more realistic—but far more terrifying—view of the world.

  • The Supernatural

    For a hardboiled crime novel, An American Dream sure features a lot of bizarre and supernatural happenings. Some characters can read minds; others can predict the future; and some are just superstitious, convinced of every old wives' tale they've ever heard. By juxtaposing these supernatural elements with the grittiness of 1960s Manhattan, Mailer argues that our so-called "rational" world is just a front for the madness that lies beneath the surface—both collectively and within all of us. That's almost as spooky as a Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. In what ways are supernatural powers used to make money? What else are they used for?
    2. Are the supernatural elements of the novel real or imagined by Rojack? Explain your answer.
    3. What do Rojack's superstitious beliefs about God and the Devil say about his character?
    4. In your opinion, why does Rojack gain Cherry's predictive powers after she dies?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, supernatural powers are used as a metaphor for the irrational undercurrent that runs beneath our rational world.

    In actuality, the so-called "supernatural" powers displayed in the novel are nothing but evidence of Rojack's madness.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Here's a pro-tip: If you murder your wife, sleep with her maid, and cover it all up as a suicide, you're going to end up telling a lot of lies. It's just a fact. In An American Dream, Rojack is caught in this very scenario, desperately trying to convince people that he's an innocent man despite all signs pointing to the contrary. But then something strange happens: Rojack starts to believe his own lies, especially because they start being proven true. This twisted web of lies and deceit isn't always easy to untangle, but that's exactly the point.

    At its core, An American Dream is all about the little truths that exist within big lies, and the big glaring lies that we masquerade around as truths.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Does Roberts buy Rojack's story? Why or why not?
    2. Is Rojack an unreliable narrator? Explain.
    3. Why did Rojack consider himself an "actor" when he was a politician? How does he consider himself in the present?
    4. Do you think Cherry is deceiving Rojack in any way? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    By proving Rojack's lies true time and again, Mailer is commenting about the irrational undercurrent that runs beneath our cookie-cutter society.

    Ultimately, the lies that Rojack tells himself are more dangerous than the ones he tells others.

  • Violence

    Rojack is one violent guy. Let's run down the list quickly: He murders his wife, throws a man down a flight of stairs, and hits his father-in-law in the face with an umbrella. And that's not even getting into the wartime experiences that haunt him to this day.

    In many ways, An American Dream is an investigation into the motivation behind this violence—an attempt to sort through the method to Rojack's madness. Here's the really disturbing thing, though: Each time Rojack commits violence on people, he walks away feeling more rejuvenated than ever. Like some sort of half-baked vampire, Rojack uses violence to fuel his own life.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why does Rojack feel rejuvenated after committing violence? Give examples to support your answer.
    2. In your opinion, why does Rojack attack Shago? Again, turn to the text for back-up.
    3. Does Rojack's violence ever come back to haunt him? What does this tell you about violence as a theme in this book?
    4. How do Rojack's experiences in World War II affect his view of violence?

    Chew on This

    For Rojack, violence is simply a means to release tension, just like sexuality.

    Although Rojack is practically addicted to violence, the pleasure he gets is as fleeting as an alcohol buzz.

  • Gender

    Like most misogynistic dudes, Rojack in An American Dream only hates women because he fears them. To be honest, Rojack probably has reason to be afraid—he married a wealthy, world-wise heiress who's acted as his ambassador to the world of high society. At his core, then, Rojack knows that everything he's achieved is only because of his wife. Not that this stops him from projecting ridiculous levels of machismo at everyone he meets. It totally doesn't. That said, now's probably a good time to mention that both of the people who die in this book are women. Hrm…

    Questions About Gender

    1. What are the differences and similarities between Rojack's and Shago's brands of masculinity? How about Cherry's and Deborah's brands of femininity?
    2. Does Rojack see Cherry as a real person? Explain.
    3. How do Cherry's early-life experiences shape her later relationships with men? How do Rojack's early-life experiences shape his later relationships with women?
    4. Is Deborah as scary as Rojack believes? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Rojack never sees the women he encounters as living, breathing human beings. Instead, he sees them as objects or representatives of some higher ideal.

    Although they seem like very different people at first, Roberts and Rojack both have difficult—and abusive—relationships with the women in their lives. Their violent fear of women reveals a deep similarity between the two men.

  • Dissatisfaction

    In An American Dream, Rojack is bummed out but he doesn't know why. By all counts, this guy's got it made—he's a former congressman-turned-professor-turned-television host, and things are going so well on the outside that he might as well be tiptoeing through the tulips. Instead, Rojack is wandering around New York City in a depressed funk, trying desperately to convince himself that he's happy.

    Here's the thing, though: You can only repress feelings of dissatisfaction for so long before they start bursting out in some seriously inappropriate ways. One murder, a fist fight, and tons of lies later, Rojack is just as unhappy as he was at beginning of the book, leaving him to wonder if there's anything out there that can help him overcome these feeling of dissatisfaction.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Is Rojack depressed because his marriage is falling apart? Why or why not?
    2. How does the moon play into Rojack's feeling of dissatisfaction? To jumpstart your answer, check out the moon's page in the "Symbolism" section.
    3. Besides Rojack, which characters seem dissatisfied with their current lives? Does anyone not seem dissatisfied?
    4. In what ways does Rojack fight his feelings of aimlessness? Are they successful?

    Chew on This

    Although recent life events are certainly bumming him out, Rojack's feelings of dissatisfaction are firmly rooted in his World War II experiences.

    Mailer uses Rojack's feelings of dissatisfaction to highlight the aimlessness and soul-sucking nature of life in the modern world.

  • Lust

    Some people have a lust for life—others simply have lust. Without a doubt, Rojack in An American Dream can count himself among the latter group. No matter the situation, no matter the time, no matter the place, Rojack never misses a chance for some sexual healing. Just murdered his wife? Perfect time for some romance. Have an appointment with the police? Rojack has a few moments to spare.

    Although he tries to convince himself that everything he's doing is normal, Rojack knows deep down inside that he's trying to hide something, some deep-seated emotional turmoil. And what is the nature of that deep-seated emotional turmoil, you ask? You'll just have to keep reading to find out.

    Questions About Lust

    1. In what ways is lust linked to wealth within the novel? Is it ever not? What does this tell you about lust as a theme in this book?
    2. Is Rojack sexually predatory? Why or why not? Use the text to support your claim.
    3. How do Deborah's early experiences with her father shape her relationship to sexuality? Provide evidence, yo.
    4. Does Rojack love Cherry or just love their sexual relationship? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Throughout the novel, Rojack uses sex to distract himself from his obsession with death that has haunted him since World War II.

    Usually, Rojack sees his female companions as little more than sexual objects—opportunities for him to feel more like a man.